Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk

The islands of Polynesia have long been a source of inspiration to visitors. Perhaps most famous is painter Paul Gauguin, but literary icons like Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson also found something special in the islands’ unique environment and culture.

It was with that knowledge in mind that LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon set out for Polynesia. Along with his wife, he traveled thousands of miles around the region, hoping to provide LIFE readers with a hint of what made the place such a rich wellspring of art. The result was a Jan. 24, 1955, photo essay titled, simply, Voyages to Paradise.

Elisofon’s work gives new meaning to the idea of “vacation reading,” with each photograph paired with a passage from a work of literature inspired by the islands.

In the dancers seen in the first slide below, for example, Elisofon saw as a picture of those whom Melville lauded in Typee, writing “not only do their feet dance, but their arms, hands, fingers, ay, their very eyes, seem to dance in their leads.” The ship seen in the fifth slide was described by Frederick O’Brien in Atolls of the Sun. And the aerial view of Bora Bora seen in slide three was just as James A. Michener had described it in Return to Paradise: “I saw it first from an airplane. On the horizon there was a speck that became a tall, blunt mountain with cliffs dropping sheer into the sea. About the base of the mountain, narrow fingers of land shot out, forming magnificent bays, while about the whole was thrown a coral ring of absolute perfection, dotted with small motus on which palms grew…”

Not every photograph Elisofon took made it into print, so we can’t say whether there are particular literary scenes with which he associated the outtakes. And yet we know for sure that these islands can inspire greatness. Perhaps the images in these unmatched photos will someday inspire works of art of their own.

Girls in frangipani blossoms swirling in a frenzied dance.

Girls in frangipani blossoms swirling in a frenzied dance.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

An old couple resting in Takaroa.

An old couple resting in Takaroa.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Bora Bora as the airborne author saw it.

An airborne view of Bora Bora.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A resident of Apia.

A resident of Apia amiably matching a literary portrait.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

County of Roxbough on Takaroa reef.

County of Roxbough on Takaroa reef.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Tahitian girl bathing.

A girl in Tahiti, bathing

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Children in Tahiti, 1955.

Children in Tahiti.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A fisherman looking out at the sea.

A fisherman looking out at the sea.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A Tahitian woman playing the Ukelele.

Playing the ukulele in Tahiti

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A Tahitian man, 1955.

A man in Tahiti.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The sacred grounds of the Typee valley.

The sacred grounds of the Typee valley.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The south seas, 1955.

The South Seas

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A Tahitian woman walking her horse through the jungle.

A Tahitian woman walking her horse through the jungle.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Sunset over the south seas, 1955.

Sunset over the South Seas

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Fiery greeting for canoes in Tahiti.

Fiery greeting for canoes in Tahiti.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A view from the beach on a Samoan evening.

A view from the beach on a Samoan evening.

Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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